Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas and Syncretism

Back in graduate school, my Apologetics professor had us spend an hour watching an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. I realize that seems like a pretty odd sentence to read. It especially raised a few eyebrows when he first had the idea and began asking the undergraduate students if anyone had taped one particular episode. But amidst the giggling and chortling, he found the program he was looking for.

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I don't remember many of the plot details, but I remember the main storyline. In it, our buxom, short-skirted hero happened upon a shepherd who was feeling unsure of himself. Somehow, Xena convinced the young man that he could accomplish the impossible. And so that shepherd went out in battle to take on the champion of the opposing army for the honor of his people. Sound familiar yet? Do I need to mention that the champion was very large? Yes, the names were not even changed -- David and Goliath!

The professor used this episode as the perfect example of syncretism. Dictionary.com defines syncretism as: "(T)he union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief (especially in religion or philosophy)." So in other words, Xena took a biblical event and tries to merge it into this fantasy world of sword-wielding amazons and routine martial arts struggles. What an odd mix it was. In fact, we students (most of whom were already senior pastors) laughed, howled and shouted back at the screen, trying to guess the next bizarre bit of Scripture to pop from the mouth of the Warrior Princess.

But as funny as it was in that context, we realized that there were probably more than a few people who treated both Goliath and Xena as equally historical. To those folks, this syncretism makes perfect sense. All those stories about ancient times all sound the same anyway.

Over the past few weeks, I've read and written more about the idea of the commercialization and secularization of Christmas than I ever care to admit. But I can't resist tossing just one more (for now anyway) out into the blogosphere. That's because Christmas is the poster boy holiday for syncretism. I drive by many private Christmas displays in private yards where the Wise Men must navigate their way past Frosty the Snowman and assorted elves to get to the stable. Often there are reindeer and a sleigh parked near the manger scene. And I have actually seen Disney characters dressed as shepherds lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree and sitting in a snowdrift, just a stone's throw from the utility pole.

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Syncretism is the name of the game. Newsday columnist James Pinkerton wrote this opinion piece in which he hails syncretism as the answer. However his definition of syncretism isn't so much a blending, but more of a "union of communities." He writes:

Kind of a sweet thought, fitting for the season... In the future, there will be more out-and-out Christmas displays across America, but there also will be more visible elements of other beliefs, too, from Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to the Muslims' Eid ul-Fitr to New Age-y "Harry Potter"-type folderol. That's the commercial, political, mostly peaceful American way, and it sure beats the alternative.

Pinkerton's alternative is what he calls a "culture war" for control of the holiday. Bizarre language for a Christian celebration to be sure, but let's face it, in a culture where no minority view is to be ignored, it is much more likely to see a separate but equal representation for anything billing itself as a religion. But I don't have a problem with that. Because that's not really syncretism. It's more of a cafeteria, actually.

Syncretism is a danger for Christians. It's not that we can't celebrate family or tradition at Christmastime. It's not that we must boycott the singing of Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride, although Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer should be avoided at all costs! But the problem lies with forgetting what Christmas is all about. It isn't a celebration of the nuclear or even the extended family, but a celebration of the gift given to God's adopted family -- a family which is ever expanding and looking for new members.

The nativity sets show three wise men despite scriptural specifics on the number of maji. Shepherds and maji stand near one another even though it's pretty clear they didn't visit near the same time. The whole scene is usually a little stand-alone barn, not a cave or part of a larger structure as was more probable. We've let images fill in the mental picture of the birth of Christ for us, and while that's probably not that big of a deal, we can see just how easy it is for us to lean on our own preferences instead of the written Word given to us. That's one of the steps on the way to true syncretism. As Christians we are to keep truth in our heart and in our mind. Mixing it with all kinds of other information can be harmless so long as we understand where the line between truth and embellishment is drawn. We stand for truth. We aren't to waste our time defending all the other additions. In fact, we must be able to separate truth from nonsense, fact from frills, and explain the difference.

Despite all the debate about how the December 25th celebration began and where the traditions originated, there is a true and pure message of Christmas -- salvation through the Baby sent as a gift from heaven. And all the red-nosed reindeer, mistletoe, family dinners and tinsel are simply wrapped around that simple message. The "union of communities" idea of adding celebrations of other faiths make up more wrapping and the pure capitalistic, selfish materialism continues to wrap that message so tight that we almost need Xena's broadsword to hack through it all.

But in dealing with syncretism, the trick is discerning the truth and holding onto it with all our might. The Truth was laid there about 2000 years ago and I pray that we can keep our hands and our minds and our hearts gripping at His feet as we play out the traditions and trappings of the modern Western Christmas. Or better still, make sure that all we do points toward the Gift of Bethlehem -- not just giving gifts because Jesus was our gift, but honestly seeking Him and pointing others toward Him by the way we speak and act and think. Don't let the "extras" pull you away from approaching the manger in adoration and thanksgiving this Christmas.

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